Inmates learn nonviolent alternatives

March 27, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

SMITHSBURG - Emma Lou Davis has seen lives change in three days. She's witnessed miracles after six.

As the Western Maryland coordinator and a lead facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Project, Davis organizes and conducts a trio of experiential three-day workshops for inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution, south of Hagerstown.

The esteem-building workshops teach the inmates to trust, respect and expect the best in themselves and others, and to manage conflict through positive communication and cooperation skills, said Davis, of Smithsburg.

"I think it's important anywhere. It's a life skill," said Davis, 65. "And I'm absolutely convinced it does work."

An inmate named Briscoe was a "mountain of rage" with the "meanest face I'd ever seen" when he signed up for the basic conflict resolution workshop, Davis said.


Then the inmate completed that first seminar. He volunteered for and finished the advanced 24-hour, personal growth workshop, in which he began to deal with childhood issues, examine his anger and relationships, and set personal goals.

"I watched his eyes change. His face was transformed," Davis said. "It was a miracle."

Briscoe was trained as an "inside" facilitator, and now shares with his loved ones and other inmates the lessons that changed his life, Davis said.

"He's a shining light."

The Community Correctional Service Committee at MCI, of which Davis is president, brought the program to Washington County in 1990, she said.

Started in New York State in 1975, the program is an international, all-volunteer organization which teaches affirmation, conflict resolution, cooperation and communication skills to participants in prisons, schools and communities, according to the AVP-USA Web site.

The service committee consists of community volunteers, prison staff and inmates who promote community involvement by bringing "outside" programs within reach of the men incarcerated at MCI, Davis said.

More than 1,500 men have completed the basic conflict resolution workshop since the program took root in Washington County a decade ago, Davis said.

Still others have volunteered for the advanced and training workshops, during which inmates are taught the skills needed to work as inside facilitators, she said.

Spiritual values underscore the program, but the project is nondenominational and non-sectarian.

"We have Moslems. We've had Jewish participants. We have non-believers. You name it, we've had 'em," Davis said.

Through small group exercises, participants learn to use active listening, cooperation and creativity and resolve conflicts and complete tasks, she said.

"To change behavior, you have to change attitude."

Attitudinal change has spurned a positive shift in the way program participants deal with each other, prison officers and the facility's rules and regulations, Davis said.

Program skills have improved inmates' quality of life and brought many prisoners peace and happiness over time, she said.

In a letter to Davis, one prison participant wrote, "You've taught me you have to tend your heart like a garden."

It's that kind of dedication that has spurred Davis' lifetime of labor-intensive volunteer efforts.

Her mother first sent the future Girl Scout and Sunday school teacher on door-to-door charity fund-raising drives, Davis said. While working part-time in the mid-1980s as director of the Arthritis Foundation in Frederick, Md., she began helping prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, south of Hagerstown, prepare for release.

Davis then took a full-time position overseeing a five-week stabilization program at Roxbury Correctional Institution, and joined the service commitee in 1983, she said.

"I have found that working in the prison has been the most rewarding kind of work that I have ever done. I see it as a ministry. I will do it until I can't do it anymore," Davis said.

"I don't like to see people fail."

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